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Extremism offers troubled young Canadians a reason to feel superior

Saturday, February 9, 2013

William Plotnikov, left, a former Toronto boxer and Seneca College student, was killed by Russian security forces in Dagestan last July while fighting with Islamist rebels. He had become radicalized by a Toronto imam after converting, according to his father.
William Plotnikov, left, a former Toronto boxer and Seneca College student, was killed by Russian security forces in Dagestan last July while fighting with Islamist rebels. He had become radicalized by a Toronto imam after converting, according to his father. Plotnikov family

Two years ago, an Australian police officer named Joe Ilardi arrived in Toronto to try to answer a disturbing question: what was turning some young Canadians into raving Islamists who yearned to wage anti-Western violence at home and abroad?

With the help of the RCMP, Senior Sgt. Ilardi interviewed seven young Toronto men he defined as “Canadian Muslim radicals.” All but one, an immigrant from Pakistan, were Canadian-born. Four had converted to Islam, including a former Mohawk Warrior.

After meeting the men several times for up to six hours in total, Sgt. Ilardi came to an unconventional conclusion: while they had bought into the narrative that justifies violence as a response to the West’s so-called “war on Islam,” they had done so largely for personal reasons.

They were not the downtrodden seeking political justice. Rather, they were deeply troubled youths who had found, in extremism, a reason to feel superior. In their minds, they had joined an exclusive fraternity that knew the truth. They weren’t losers after all; they were better than everyone else.

“The appeal of an ideology which replaced feelings of inferiority with superiority, or which provided clarity of purpose where previously there was only purposelessness, for some men, seemed irresistible,” noted Sgt. Ilardi, a member of the Counter-Terrorism Coordination Unit of the Melbourne-based Victoria Police.
His conclusions on how they become infatuated with jihadist ideology offer insights into a problem that is putting Canadians at risk and damaging Canada’s international reputation as more Canadian terrorists are identified overseas — most recently in Bulgaria and Algeria.

This week, a suspected Canadian member of the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah was blamed for the July 18, 2012 bombing of a bus full of Israeli tourists on their way to the Black Sea coast. An Australian is also suspected of involvement. Six died in the blast.

Two weeks ago, Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalik Sellal said a pair of Canadians were involved in last month’s siege at the In Amenas gas plant that left 38 workers dead. Witnesses told reporters one of the attackers was a blonde-haired Canadian, possibly of Chechen origin.

Algerie TV via Assiaciated Press TV
In this image taken from Algerian TV broadcast on Sunday Jan. 20 2013, showing what it said was the aftermath of the hostage crisis at the remote Ain Amenas gas facility in Algeria. / Algerie TV via Assiociated Press TV

The RCMP is investigating but has not yet publicly confirmed any of the attackers were Canadians. “Canadian officials are on the ground in Algeria working with Algerian officials to get the necessary information,” Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird’s spokesman, Rick Roth, said Friday.

Another Canadian, William Plotnikov, a former Toronto boxer and Seneca College student, was killed by Russian security forces in Dagestan last July while fighting with Islamist rebels. He had become radicalized by a Toronto imam after converting, according to his father.

Canadian volunteers have been turning up in Somalia as well. In 2009, a half-dozen Somali-Canadian youths left to join the al-Qaeda-linked Al Shabab. In 2011, a 25-year-old was arrested at Toronto’s Pearson airport as he was allegedly leaving to join.

“CSIS is aware of at least 45 Canadians, possibly as many as 60, many in their early twenties, who have travelled or attempted to travel from Canada to Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen to join al Qaeda-affiliated organizations and engage in terrorism-related activities,” Richard Fadden, the Director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, testified last April.

The flow of wide-eyed Canadians to overseas hotspots, and fears they could return to carry out attacks at home, led to the introduction of legislation last year specifically making it illegal to leave Canada with the intent of committing terrorism.

Like Canada, Australia has not been successfully attacked on its soil, but it has been experiencing similar problems with radicalization — which prompted Sgt. Ilardi’s trip to Canada between March and June 2011. While he is still finalizing his research paper for publication, he shared his findings with the National Post.
Seven may be a small sample size from which to draw conclusions, but Sgt. Ilardi has credentials. A police officer for two decades, he has been working in counter-terrorism for 10 years and has a PhD in the role of intelligence in counter-terrorism. He is part of a team studying radicalization at Monash University in Melbourne.

His analysis of the Canadian extremists he met identified explanations that run counter to the stereotype that depicts extremists as inevitable products of the injustices of the Western world. In fact, he said most of the interviewees were politically unaware before they were indoctrinated into radical Islam.

Tom Hanson /  The Canadian Press
Momin Khawaja leaves the Ottawa courthouse under RCMP protection on May 3, 2004. Tom Hanson / The Canadian Press

Certainly, they were not living the Canadian dream. They had come from broken homes, and had drug, alcohol and gambling addictions. Some had been imprisoned for violent crimes. One had converted to Islam moments after he had intended to take his own life.

What extremism gave them was a perch from which to look down on other Canadians as ignorant and misguided. “These feelings were in stark contrast with those typically experienced by these men prior to their immersion in the world of radical Islam,” Sgt. Ilardi said.

A 2009 paper on radicalization, published on the RCMP website, came to a somewhat similar conclusion, noting extremism provided followers with “a means of explaining the world but — just as importantly — with a sense of personal meaning and a cause for which to fight.”

Ever since the 9/11 attacks, Canadians have been puzzling over the motives of the extremists among them, from the Khadrs and Ontario al-Qaeda member Mohammad Jabarrah to Ottawa’s Momin Khawaja and the Toronto 18. In 2010, three men were arrested in Ontario over an alleged plot to conduct attacks in Canada.
The latest case involves an unnamed Lebanese who moved to Vancouver with his parents at the age of eight. Although he left Canada four years later, he had by then acquired a Canadian passport. Last June, he allegedly used it to enter Bulgaria to conduct a bombing for Hezbollah.

The limited time he spent in Canada suggests he was radicalized in Lebanon, but as a Canadian citizen, he could have returned at any time. Instead, he allegedly chose to use his Canadian passport to kill tourists in Europe.

The Canadians interviewed by Sgt. Ilardi were also eager to engage in violence. They wanted to fight abroad. Significantly, they didn’t. They were deterred by the arrests of other extremists, or came to realize the error of their ways, in some cases when the anti-Western narrative they had been spoon-fed failed to match their positive interactions with Canadians.

“Just as personal relationships proved instrumental in these men’s radicalization,” Sgt. Ilardi noted, “so too were they in helping individuals reassess and recalibrate the theological and practical implications of engaging in jihad.”


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